Winning over the diaspora

Winning over the diaspora

May 10, 2014

The Indian diaspora numbers around 25 million, 10 million of whom remain Indian citizens. Members are increasingly playing an active role in political campaigns back home and the current election is no exception. Thousands of non-resident Indians (NRIs), for example, have flocked to India this election season to cast their votes and hit the campaign trail on behalf of frontrunner and BJP prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, who enjoys strong support among Indians abroad. A number of NRI organizations are working tactfully to burnish Modi’s image outside of India by portraying him as a business-friendly leader committed to economic development and good governance. Other groups that were behind the push to deny Mr. Modi a U.S. visa in 2005 continue to lobby aggressively against him.

This is the first national election in which Indian expats have been allowed to vote – though they must first make the trip to India to cast their ballot since there is no system of absentee or online voting currently in place. According to the New York Times, the Election Commission is in the process of exploring how to amend India’s voting laws to allow NRIs to vote from their country of residence by the time of the next national election. Maximizing participation in the democratic process is incumbent upon any government.

The diaspora takes a proactive interest in Indian politics and is a crucial source of investment into the Indian economy, not to mention a crucial source of fundingfor those seeking high office. In light of this, what have India’s major political parties said this time around to mobilize and woo members of the diaspora? A look at the election manifestos recently released by the Congress Party and the BJP might offer some interesting insights into how these parties view the large community of Indian expatriates.

The foreign policy section of the BJP manifesto places special emphasis on India’s soft power potential and pledges to revive “Brand India” through what it describes as the 5 T’s: tradition, talent, trade, technology and tourism. Tapping into the knowledge and expertise of the NRI community is specifically enumerated as one of nine guiding principles of a BJP foreign policy. As the manifesto states, “The NRIs, PIOs and professionals settled abroad are a vast reservoir to articulate the national interests and affairs globally. This resource will be harnessed for strengthening Brand India.” This is an acknowledgement of the meaningful role of the diaspora in domestic politics and in promoting India to a global audience.

The Congress party, by contrast, appears almost indifferent toward the diaspora community and refers to them in a much narrower context – perhaps because the party is generating little enthusiasm among Indians settled abroad, let alone the domestic electorate. Its manifesto simply states that “Protecting Indians overseas from exploitation or threats will remain a paramount concern of the Indian National Congress.” There is no sweeping narrative tying together the diaspora community and India’s own destiny as there is in the BJP’s manifesto, which regards the diaspora as an important vehicle for furthering Indian interests and enhancing India’s image abroad.

Members of the diaspora are making sure that their voices are heard in this election whether through social media, raising funds, or becoming volunteers on the campaign trail. Their efforts could shape the outcome of the ongoing election and influence the way future elections in India are conducted.